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Equipping the Criminal Justice sector with essential employability skills

A group of organisations are working together to build fair opportunities for those exiting the criminal justice system to boost their essential employability skills.


John Sampson is a former prison officer who took part in the Unlocked Graduates Leadership Development Programme before going on to become Lead Coach at StandOut. As Employer Development Manager at Skills Builder, John is working to ensure more people leaving prison are empowered to transform their own lives, realise their potential, and escape the justice system for good. He brings his own experiences and insight from the Criminal Justice space to provide guidance on how the essential skills can support effective provision.
Tom Varley is Impact Organisations Manager at Skills Builder and leads the organisation’s work on inclusion, ensuring that high quality opportunities to build essential skills are available to all, including those from underserved groups, socially excluded groups and those furthest from education and employment.

In this blog we write about some of the challenges, proposed solutions and examples of how essential skills are creating opportunities in the criminal justice sector, and how you can get involved. 

Skills Builder’s grounding principle is that opportunities to build essential skills effectively are fair and available to all. But this unfortunately isn't always the case. Experience of the criminal justice system leaves people facing significant barriers to accessing education.

Across the Partnership, we work with employers, education institutions and impact organisations to demonstrate the impact of essential skills in their work. Taking a strengths-based approach to essential skill development that is person-centred and focuses on an individual’s strengths and areas for development within eight transferable skills creates opportunities for personal development. 

It brings a focus on what people can do, and how people can transfer this into different contexts. By delivering high quality programmes that explicitly build essential skills, organisations are working to address educational inequality and provide individuals with the opportunities to escape the ‘skills trap’, where a lack of early advantage and opportunity can lead to a perpetually lower trajectory – a lower skilled job, lower income, fewer opportunities to build skills in the future and overall lower levels of life satisfaction.

As we continue to grow our partnership work within the criminal justice space, we want to build on the expertise from a range of stakeholders across our network to benefit from their perspectives and insights on the impact essential skills can have within the criminal justice system. 

The Skills Builder Criminal Justice Cluster is bringing together educators, impact organisations, employers, policy makers and leading voices from across the Criminal Justice space. Online forums will provide the platform to make connections, share best practice and, ultimately, to share ideas on how we can maximise our collective impact and leverage the Universal Framework to help achieve positive change.

Essential skills in prison 

Evidence from the Prisoner Learning Alliance demonstrates how meaningful opportunities to develop essential skills are limited:

  • 47% of people entering prison have no prior qualifications
  • 42% of people in prison have been permanently excluded from school
  • 62% of the prison population has low levels of literacy, which is four times higher than in the general population

There is also a need for prisons and other secure settings to ensure the programmes and opportunities they offer meet the needs of their population.

The Ministry of Justice states the "key to reducing reoffending is ensuring that our prison leavers are well-equipped for life on release. This means engaging prisoners in education and training opportunities whilst in prison and supporting them into suitable jobs and housing on release" and the HM Inspectorate of Prisons' inspection criteria for education, work and skills activities in prisons states "all prisoners are expected and enabled to engage in education, skills or work activities that promote personal development and employability." This focus is being prioritised by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) as seen with the establishment of their Head of Education, Skills and Work initiative beginning in 2022. 

Positive foundations and opportunities

Schemes like the New Futures Network have been launched as specialist parts of HMPPS with the aim of attracting and supporting employers to work with prisons in England and Wales, providing opportunities for businesses to hire people leaving prison.  

Some settings have also taken the extra step of creating employment opportunities within the prison and linked this to specific industries such as rail, facilities and hospitality, whilst notable employers such as The Timpson Group and Iceland Foods have paved the way for proactively providing employment pathways and raising the profile of rehabilitation.

We see essential skills as critical to complementing and enhancing employment initiatives and focus within prisons, but it’s clear there’s work to be done.

Ofsted have reported that prison education is the worst performing sector they inspect. In 2021, Ofsted restarted their inspections of education, skills and work activities in prisons and carried out 22 full inspections in the year after. Only one prison was judged to be good.  In April 2022, Ofsted published a review of prison monitoring visits, but only 2 of the 41 establishments included in this review were judged to be making significant progress towards curriculum recovery. One of the key themes was that people in prison are missing out on learning opportunities daily, and leaving prison without the skills they need for successful resettlement.

What's evidently missing is the opportunity for individuals in custody to access a meaningful education that supports their development of the skills needed to access meaningful - and, crucially, sustainable - employment opportunities. This presents a huge opportunity for an effective, joined-up approach to essential skill development, delivering meaningful opportunities to people experiencing the Criminal Justice System that lead to lasting change.

How essential skills can provide the catalyst for positive change

Essential skills play a vital role in addressing this educational inequality. From our evidence base, we know essential skills unlock learning and boost wellbeing and life satisfaction. They halve the likelihood of being out of work, and increase earnings across a lifetime. They even boost wellbeing and life satisfaction.  

There are a number of ways essentials support people in prison to develop skills that will set them up for long-term success upon leaving custodial settings:  

  • Being able to measure and assess essential skills using the Universal Framework provides employers with a complete approach for building essential skills across their business.  
  • Taking a skills-based approach to recruitment creates a more inclusive process with a wider talent pool that also fosters social mobility. 
  • Equipping individuals with the language to articulate their strengths allows them to plan for employment, identifying the transferable skill sets they have developed from their experiences.  
  • These employability skills are even more important for people who have experienced the criminal justice system, and the Universal Framework provides the common language for these to be recognised by both the business and the candidate.

Working with partners within the Criminal Justice space, essential skills are playing a pivotal role in supporting individuals to achieve meaningful outcomes and work towards positive change:

  • At Barton Moss Secure Children's Home, we are supporting the Education Centre team and wider Unit Staff to embed essential skills across care, education and support. Essential skills are seen as critical to effective personal development, and the nature of staff's interactions with young people at the Home provides a range of opportunities to explicitly highlight the transferability of essential skills between the classroom and other contexts.  In doing so, this highlights to the young people how they can, in turn, be harnessed to support employment pathways.
  • StandOut is an organisation that specialises in coaching-based practice to support men leaving prisons in inner London, their work centres on returning to the world of work. Aligning an in-custody employability programme to the Universal Framework, StandOut focuses tightly on the essential skills critical to success in the workplace, using the common language of essential skills and explicit skill steps within coaching conversations to set goals, highlight strengths and areas for development, and to track and demonstrate progression.  This effectively supports their objectives to develop positive mindsets and new ways of thinking, practise and apply CV writing and interview skills, and set goals beyond the programme.
  • Entrepreneurs Unlocked’s Self-Employment Programme supports programme participants in building the skills to become their own boss and lead crime-free lives. By bringing an explicit focus on essential skill development into custody-based programmes, this programme supports those furthest from employment to identify the strengths and skill sets they possess to be successful, with delivery staff confidently using the language of the Universal Framework.  Self-assessment and reflection forms a key part of an individual’s journey, and they are supported to track the essential skills they are developing as they work through self-employment modules, utilising bespoke Reflective Log resources to capture evidence and measure progress.

Criminal Justice Cluster coming together to create a joined-up approach

The Skills Builder Criminal Justice Cluster is now looking to build on these examples by establishing a collaborative space to share best practice and development opportunities. In the initial online meeting, members of the Criminal Justice Cluster shared their reasons for wanting to be part of this movement for collective action, as they looked to learn from others and establish ‘What good looks like’. 

There was also the desire to collaborate and combine efforts, citing the power of a common approach and shared language, with the recognition that this would improve connections between adult and children’s secure estates. The Universal Framework has been designed for everyone, at every stage, so provides the tool for measuring and building essential skills in all areas of Criminal Justice.

Get involved

The next Criminal Justice Forum will be held on Wednesday 10 July and is kindly being hosted by New Futures Network in Westminster. We are excited to continue to develop the focus of this Criminal Justice Cluster in this session and take this area of work forward, and would love to hear from those keen to be involved:

  • If you’re an employer with Criminal Justice as a focus of your outreach, we can explore opportunities to support this area of your work and connect you with delivery organisations.  
  • If you work in the secure estate, an Alternative Provision setting or a Violence Reduction Unit and are keen to connect with other settings embedding essential skills in their provision, we can share best practice and identify avenues for collaboration.  
  • For organisations working within the Criminal Justice System looking to hone and demonstrate the impact of essential skills in your work, we can identify the most effective training to upskill your team in building essential skill development into your programmes.

If you’re keen to be involved, we’d love to talk more! Contact us on the email addresses below to share your thoughts and start the conversation.